• Dr Bill Jonas AM receiving an honorary doctorate award from the University of Newcastle in 1998. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
A tribute to Dr William Jonas, a proud Worimi academic and social justice activist 1941 - 2019, by an old friend.
Emeritus Professor Richie Howitt

31 May 2019 - 3:02 PM  UPDATED 31 May 2019 - 3:34 PM

Dr Jonas was a public intellectual of national significance.

He was the first Aboriginal person to be awarded a PhD from the University of Papua New Guinea in 1980. Later in life he became Australia’s second Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner from 1999 - 2004, at the Australian Human Rights Commission, then known as Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. 

To me though, he was Bill, a treasured friend, teacher and mentor. 

I remember him as a proud Worimi man, born in Sydney and raised on his Country in the small town of Allworth, near Karuah north of Newcastle.

Bill's energy was always focused on advocating passionately for social justice, the protection of Aboriginal heritage, improvements in Aboriginal education, Indigenous and human rights and Reconciliation. 

Bill died in Sydney early on Saturday May 25th after living with cancer and its treatment since 2014.

Bill faced his diagnosis, treatment and mortality with courage and honesty, commenting on how disappointed he was that many people found it hard to use the words cancer and death when they spoke with him. In many ways, Bill spent a lifetime pursuing difficult truths and supporting others to come to new terms with those truths.

Bill spoke out loud and clear at a critical time in Indigenous history as Social Justice Commissioner when governments were arguing that to recognise Indigenous peoples’ rights would take away their right to be responsible. As Bill recalled, the climate was that the rights agenda was dead, gone, finished.

In 2003, as Social Justice Commissioner, Bill Jonas successfully fought against a Federal Government proposed bill to alter the structure of the Commission, which would have abolished the post of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner along with the Race Discrimination Commissioner,Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Disability Discrimination Commissioner and Human Rights Commissioner.

He shared his opinion with me, that the government’s response to the Social Justice reports was to misrepresent them, especially where the reports were critical of them – which was often – and then they tried to totally ignore them. Bill continued to advocate rights as the foundation for justice without fear.

He is deeply mourned by a wide circle of friends and admirers. A private funeral has been held in Sydney.

Bill’s early life in Allworth was hardly the typical background of high-level, twenty-first century bureaucrats. His grandfather was the well-known Aboriginal showman and decorated war veteran Billy Jonas, whose whip-cracking and horse-riding skill took him to England in 1911 to perform at the coronation of King George V. He subsequently joined a troupe known as the Wild Colonial Boys, which performed across England and the USA before he returned to Australia to be with his family – and to enlist in the Australian Army.

After retiring in 2004, Bill wrote and spoke at length about his grandparents, Billy and Maude, and his great uncle Dick and how they influenced his life trajectory. Billy married Bill’s grandmother, Maude in England.

Maude was a beautiful woman who was thrown out by her English family because of her choice of husband and her black children. Maude made the voyage out to Australia at the start of World War I. She lived in a shack in the small village of Allworth on the Karuah River on Worimi Country where saltwater and freshwater met with her world-travelled husband and his younger brother, Dick.

Dick was deeply connected to his traditional Country. He was a fisherman, astute environmental observer, and generous teacher about Country for the young Bill. In teaching him how things were interconnected, Dick Jonas laid strong foundations for young Bill’s future pathway to geography, just as Maude and Billy gave him an appetite for the wider world.

After completing High School in Raymond Terrace and winning a scholarship for university studies, Bill studied Geography at Newcastle University College (1959-1962), graduating with honours in 1963 and completing his Diploma in Education the following year.

While he was at university, Bill boarded with his Aunty Lil and Uncle Jack at Dudley and travelled to and from the old Tighes Hill campus on the slow double decker bus service that wound its way through Newcastle’s southern suburbs before Bill got off in Hamilton. His long daily walk past cafes, restaurants and delicatessens and the smells of the coffee, pasta sauces and salamis opened a whole new world for the boy from Allworth and he loved it. It also introduced him to the cultural diversity and complex lives of a rapidly changing multicultural Australia and foreshadowed the wider world he would soon enter.

By the time he began teaching social science at Maitland Boys High in 1964, Bill married Wendy, and was already a passionate geographer. He understood the value of immersion in the real world through fieldwork, the importance of difference and connections between people, places, economics and environment. It wasn’t too long before Bill was back at Newcastle studying for his MA in Geography.

In 1969 he took up a lectureship at the University of Papua New Guinea and began research into forest industries.  This work culminated in his PhD thesis and a number of publications. He and Wendy separated at that time and divorced in 1980.

The PhD was awarded in 1980 and was the first awarded to an Aboriginal person. This was one of many ‘firsts’ that marked Bill’s career, which encompassed impressive achievements in academia, public administration, human rights and community leadership.

Bill returned to Australia in 1974 and began teaching at the University of Newcastle. Bill was deeply impressed by the support offered by the Aboriginal Legal Service to one of his relatives. This prompted him to look for ways to contribute more directly to improving Aboriginal rights and life outcomes. He began as a geographer, by setting up perhaps the first university geography course on Aboriginal Australia in the early-1980s.

With his Newcastle colleague, Mary Hall, he undertook research for the newly-established NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs, documenting basic needs of Aboriginal communities across the state. He also became a director of the Newcastle Awabakal Aboriginal Cooperative, which he chaired from 1984-1986. As he put it in a radio interview for Awaye in 2007, “somebody somewhere must have noticed what I was doing [because] I was appointed as a Royal Commissioner on the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia – Maralinga”.

Experience on the Maralinga Royal Commission exposed Bill to a wider experience of Aboriginal Australia, and also brought his intelligence and insight to wider attention. He was already contributing to leadership of education initiatives in Newcastle and beyond when he was appointed to roles on the NSW Education Commission, Australian Heritage Commission, and Immigration Review Tribunal.

This wider experience encouraged Bill to apply for the position of Principal at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra, to which he was appointed in 1991. Under Bill’s leadership and with strong support from the Institute Council, AIATSIS became a much wider, community-engaged scholarly organisation supporting and disseminating research relevant to Native Title, living cultural and community activity, and pushing an ethical framework for working with Indigenous peoples.

At AIATSIS, Bill co-authored the hugely significant Little Red, Yellow and Black Book with Marcia Langton and AIATSIS staff.

This book was produced for the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and offered an accessible introduction to Indigenous issues and perspectives to a very wide audience. As his contract was coming to its end at AIATSIS, Bill was head-hunted for the role of Director of the National Museum of Australia, which he held with distinction from 1996-1999.

The significance of Bill’s achievements on the national stage was recognised when he became a Member of the Order of Australia (1993) for services to protection and preservation of Aboriginal heritage and culture, and received the Australian Institute of Geographers’ Professional Service Commendation (1999).

He also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Newcastle (1998) and Convocation Medal for professional Excellence (1999). His service at the University continued as a member of the Senate and Council, and in roles supporting Indigenous education and staff development.

Appointment to the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1999 as Australia’s second Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner was an opportunity to address the issues that he had identified so powerfully in his early academic work in NSW, and which continued to affect Indigenous Australians.

Bill spoke out fearlessly when it was worth speaking out. And in his roles speaking out loudly was much needed. This new role presented many opportunities of importance. He addressed the manifest injustice of mandatory sentencing laws in Western Australia and the Northern Territory; he spoke out against the misrepresentations of government performance in international forums and government failures in pursuing reconciliation.

His annual Social Justice and Native Title Reports record Bill’s leadership in Indigenous rights and his approach to pushing back against what he saw as the vicious racism and incompetence of paternalistic governments and deeply seated racism across Australian society. 

Not long before his death, Bill confided that he felt proud of the roles he had played. He was particularly proud of his teaching, key decisions of the Immigration Appeals Tribunal, and his service as Social Justice and Race Relations Commissioner.

For all his achievements, success and impacts, however, Bill Jonas was a modest and realistic man whose final wishes were to leave without fuss or ceremony. Bill wrote to his sister Mavis, before she died in 2016, that he “would be happy enough to be put in a green garbage bag … I suppose it is only fair to let other people know that you have gone but I want no funeral service, no memorial service or anything resembling them”.

Bill leaves behind a rich and powerful legacy in writing and through his influence as a teacher, colleague and generous friend to many who are much the richer for sharing in this life so well spent by a man so well-loved.

Bill is survived by his loving stepson and carer Randell Karl. A scholarship fund to support Indigenous students at the University of Newcastle has been established in Bill’s memory and donations can be made at Newcastle.edu.au/dr-bill-jonas